Castro is, along with CrossFit founder Greg Glassman, the most recognized face of CrossFit Headquarters. Beginning his CrossFit career as an intern in the original Santa Cruz gym in California while working as a Navy SEAL in Monterey, he’s now co-director of training and the Games director for CrossFit.
In our conversations and the hours of online videos that feature Castro on CrossFit.com, YouTube and the CrossFit Journal, he comes off as very confident in his views and direction. But that’s balanced by a sense of humor and a sense of awe at how quickly CrossFit has grown around him. Castro has struggled at times with the attendant backlash to CrossFit’s popularity, but he clearly believes it’s his duty to do what is best for CrossFit and the community, regardless of how those decisions are perceived. “We’re not a bunch of evil people walking around HQ plotting to make more money or destroy what we’ve built,” he told me. “We’re normal people working on nurturing and growing CrossFit. That’s not always exciting to write about, but it’s the truth.”
We spoke with Castro, 35, recently about that truth, his time with the Navy SEALs, his history with CrossFit and the CrossFit Games.
Where did you grow up and go to high school? Were you into sports as a kid?
I was born in San Jose, Calif., and in second grade, we moved to Aromas, Calif. I graduated in 1996 from Watsonville High School just outside of Santa Cruz.
High school was an interesting experience. The area was 85 to 90 percent Mexican, and even though I’m Mexican, I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, so I was the outcast. Playing football was a good place for me, and I was able to blend in well there. I wasn’t a star or anything, but I was a wide receiver and started a couple of games. I had a great time.
How did you get from there to being a Navy SEAL operator?
The summer after [high school] graduation, I went to see the movie The Rock with my girlfriend. It’s cheesy, but in it, there’s a group of Navy SEALs called in to save the hostages. They had all the cool equipment and the uniforms and snuck in through the sewer. I actually went home that night and started searching online. I went to the local library and Army surplus buying the DVDs and books and just reading and studying everything about the SEALs. There was this little thing in the back of my head: “I wonder if I can do that?” As soon as that idea was planted, it was over. That was it. I started training for the SEALs and told my parents I wanted to do it. They didn’t like the idea, and I was already accepted to California State University, Monterey Bay, so I entered college. But I decided if I didn’t do this now, I’d never have the opportunity to do it. So I dropped out of college after three months and left for boot camp in early 1997. I was very fortunate to get through BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training) in one try and was assigned to my first SEAL team in 1998.
How were you introduced to CrossFit?
I was big into climbing [in 2004], and we were deployed into Afghanistan, where we would have to go on these long operations through the mountains, so I became very interested in how climbers and mountaineers stayed fit. At the time, it was all long and slow, with lots of running and no weight training. I started running more, thinking that would help, but it really didn’t translate well.
I was fortunate that we could train with the best, so we called up Mark Twight (one of the top climbers in the world). I went on a climbing trip with Mark in Yosemite and asked him what he was doing to stay in shape. He told me he’d completely changed his approach from that long and slow stuff. He told me about CrossFit.
What did you first think of CrossFit?
I was highly skeptical at first. But I started looking at stuff on CrossFit.com back in 2005, and the website was well-populated and had a lot of good resources. On my next deployment, where the traditional stuff I was using wasn’t really working, I decided after months and months of research to try CrossFit. Just like so many other people, I instantly saw results and was instantly hooked.
How did you meet Coach Glassman and get directly involved with HQ?
I took orders to go to Monterey at the end of 2005, near where I grew up in Aromas. I knew that CrossFit Headquarters was in Santa Cruz, so in early 2006, I started driving out there. Initially, I just worked out with them. But they eventually invited me to a Level 1 seminar. Then Greg started asking me to help out at Level 1s, and I was really just an intern, moving chairs around and setting up. Slowly, I’d get a little more of a voice. And that role developed to where it is now six years later: I’m director of training with Nicole Carroll.
Roughly how many people is CrossFit certifying through your Level 1 certification courses each week? And are those numbers growing?
About 70, with 12 separate Level 1 seminars this coming week. And in just a couple of weeks, we’ll be upward of 15 each week. That’s crazy, if you look at three years ago, when we were doing two or three per week. By early to mid-2013, we’ll be up to 20 Level 1s. It’s really evidence of how popular this movement is and how quickly CrossFit is growing.
With that level of growth, are you worried about maintaining the quality of the certified trainers coming out each week?
We’ve had 35,000 people pass the Level 1 test to be a Level 1 certified trainer. And we have about 4,500 affiliates. The reality is, less than 15 percent of the people who have passed this test have actually followed through to where they’ve opened a gym. We’re giving them the knowledge to start somewhere, to lead them on this path. This isn’t the end-all and be-all for most of these attendees.
Here’s where there would be a problem: If 30,000 people were opening affiliates and they were throwing bricks through windows and hurting people on a daily basis, we’d need to take a look at what we’re doing. We’re pretty happy with the training model.
In other words, you feel like you have the seminar training staff to support that growth?
The people who train Level 1 are the best of the best trainers out there. They’re well-established as great trainers out in the community [before working for us]. Nicole and I are constantly developing more trainers for the Level 1 classes, and we’re always ahead of the curve. Right now, we have the staff to do 20 seminars in a week, and we’re developing enough training staff to do 25 seminars in a week.
If CrossFit is still popular in two to three years and there’s demand to do 30 Level 1s, we’ll do it. We won’t slow down the rate that people want to learn about CrossFit. There’s no reason to take that stance other than stunting our growth. As long as there is this much interest, we’re going to keep working on satisfying that interest.
Where did the idea for the CrossFit Games come from, and how did the first one get off the ground?
Early in 2007, I came back to Aromas and invited Coach Glassman to come out to my parents’ ranch. We were walking around, and he really liked the place. He said, “We should have some sort of event out here. We’ll call it the Woodstock of Fitness.” We talked about it and we wanted CrossFit events, people camping and just having a big party. It was a small event; we just invited the best that we knew in the CrossFit community, and in July, we had our first-ever Games.
You guys were on your family ranch drinking beer and conducting the first Games, and this year, the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., was sold out all week. Did you ever expect the CrossFit Games to blow up this quickly?
At that first Games, we had 50 or 60 athletes and 100 spectators. We had fun but had no idea what we were in for or what we were creating. In 2009, we put in a qualification process where we had 16 regional events across the country, so now we were only getting the best CrossFitters for the Games. And this took the event to another level. It had this vibe that this was a blossoming sport and people were taking this very seriously. That was when it dawned on me that there was something bigger to this than a get-together or a local competition. Since then, it’s just been insane growth. (Ed. note: In 2012, 70,000 athletes participated in the CrossFit Games Open competition to qualify for Regionals.) It’s wild to watch the Games grow and a crazy ride trying to nurture that and help decide what direction it’s going in. It’s been an amazing experience.
You’re also CrossFit Games director, so you program the WODs for the Games. Where are you in that process for 2013?
Programming the Games is a really long journey. We’re programming the Open, Regionals and Games at the same time because they build on each other. A few people at HQ — a super small group — go back and forth about programming. We’ll lay out formats, talk about workouts, time domains, movements, what we’ve tested previously and what we want to test this year. But there’s so much more now to take into consideration [with spectators and ESPN coverage]. How’s everything going to lay out? Logistically, does it work? Can spectators see it? Does it tell a story? Besides being a good test of fitness, we have to make workouts that are good visual displays, as well.
Is Games programming based partially on main-site WODs, as well?
Here’s what the main-site programming is in relation to the Games: It’s very, very classical CrossFit. Main-site programming doesn’t ever change to fit the needs of the Games competitor, but in the past, we’ve given a nod to the components you’ll see in the Games. So now, pretty much anything we throw up on the main site before the Games, someone predicts it will be in the Games. That’s not necessarily true — we’ve put up fakes, too.
You’ve said there were some growing pains with the Games getting so big so fast. What are mistakes you’ve made?
We’ve made mistakes visually and in laying out the venue and the floor. You don’t want the events to overshadow the athletes or make it too complicated, and we’ve done that. We want the Games to balance the athletes with the events while still having that complete fitness test and a complete show. For 2013, we’ll continue to improve the visuals with more numbers, scoreboards and touch pads to end workouts.
Other than maybe a handful of the elite athletes, you and Coach Glassman are the faces of CrossFit and certainly of CrossFit HQ. Do you feel any particular pressure in holding that position?
It’s not pressure, but there is responsibility with it, and I don’t take that lightly. With that responsibility, there are times we need to make tough decisions that aren’t always popular, but we do things that are the right things to do. We’re not in this to win a popularity contest, and I don’t do what I do for CrossFit to be a character or celebrity. All that recognition is just a side effect. I could be enjoying the popularity and focused on making myself a fucking rock star, but that’s not what this is about. We’re in this to make people’s lives better, to help people live healthier, happier, stronger lives.
As CrossFit has gotten more popular, there’s been a significant backlash. And other than CrossFit as an idea itself, you and Coach Glassman are subjected to the harshest criticism, online anyway. How do you deal with that?
Greg and I are easy targets. We’re vocal, we have strong positions, and we aren’t afraid to speak our minds and are highly visible in doing that. For that, there are going to be people who don’t appreciate it and are going to attack. We both understand, and I’m going to continue to be honest and speak my mind. And here’s the reality of it: It’s all online. I’ve been to hundreds of events and seminars, CrossFit gatherings, the Games and Regionals, and there’s never been an “I fucking hate you, Dave Castro!” in person. Everyone I meet and talk to is super cool and walks up to me to shake my hand and take pictures with me. If you’re going to be a coward and only do that online and not in person, you don’t exist to me. The stuff online is so lame. I’ve evolved and have grown into this role, so it doesn’t bother me much anymore. It’s not something I prepared for or expected. It’s a weird thing to even talk about, though.
Have you seen or heard any legitimate criticism that you’ve ta to heart?
In the 2008 Games (and seen in the documentary film Every Second Counts, which Castro produced), a competitor was bouncing the bar on his reps and the judge wasn’t calling him on it. I overruled on the scene and told him to redo five reps. I can’t do that. And I’ve told him that was a mistake. Other than that, no. If my friends or a lot of people in CrossFit were coming forward with criticism, I would think about changing or think something is wrong with me.
There’s also been some controversy lately around the partial sale of CrossFit to Anthos Capital. What’s the latest on that development?
Anthos won’t be involved. They will not be a part of CrossFit. I’ve met them, and they’re very typical venture capitalist type of guys, talking about maximizing profits. We’re about doing what’s right on multiple levels, not just financial levels. We’re going to work out some legal things, and we’re moving forward with business as usual.
And finally, you have a famously well-outfitted garage gym. What’s your favorite new CrossFit toy?
That’s a really good question. I really enjoy the Big Bob sled we used at the Games, and I have that out at the ranch. Rogue sends me a ton of crazy stuff I play with all the time. Actually, that would be the best answer: the latest prototype Rogue sends me.